South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is considering holding an early conference to replace its top leaders after its worst election performance since the end of apartheid 22 years ago, it said on Tuesday.

The elective conference is due to take place in December 2017 to pick a successor for the party’s leader, President Jacob Zuma, but ANC officials said talks were underway to hold it earlier to have more time to repair the damage after big losses in local polls and prepare for national elections in 2019.

The party still won the most votes overall during the Aug. 3 local government elections. But, with its reputation bruised by charges of corruption against Zuma, and with unemployment high and the country teetering on the edge of recession, it lost a lot of support, particularly in major cities.

However, analysts said it was not yet clear whether the conference would be called to replace Zuma or to remove other top party officials critical of the president.

The Youth League, which initiated the idea of an early elective conference, is a bastion of support for Zuma within the party.

Zuma has himself said he will not stand for a third term, but the party’s constitution does not bar him from doing so.

“The idea of an early conference is not a bad idea, because it will give whatever leadership that comes out of the conference a longer period to prepare for 2019,” ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe told a news conference though he gave no indication when such a decision could be made.

Such an early conference would a clear objective “not just go there and then fight it out there, smash each other, blood on the floor … we come out of the conference more divided.”

Analysts cautioned that it would be too hasty to suggest that Zuma’s removal would be on the agenda at such a conference.

“The Youth League are know for protecting Zuma. If they are behind the call for an early conference it is because they may be looking to support Zuma for a third term, or have him pick a successor,” NKC African Economics analyst Gary van Staden said.

BNP Paribus Securities South Africa political analyst Nic Borain concurred.

“I would be cautious to jump to conclusions on this without further information. The Youth League is a pillar of support for Zuma. Maybe his critics could be on the line,” he said.

Following the municipal elections, the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party – which has been running the local government in Cape Town – now controls Johannesburg, the municipality that includes the capital, Pretoria, and Nelson Mandela Bay, reshaping the political landscape in South Africa.


(Editing by Richard Balmforth)